The Holy Spirit is worse than useless

Something that completely vexes the Christian believer is why non-Christians are not at all convinced by their testimony of the witness of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of God which is said to confirm the truth (1 John 5:6, John 14:17).  The short answer is that this alleged being appears everywhere, “confirming” indisputably contradictory theology.  It visits Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – as well as Catholics, Orthodox, Quakers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Seventh Day Adventists.  And now, it’s making an appearance among preachers of the prosperity gospel too!  Consider the following testimony from a congregant of Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, yes that Eddie Long, the homophobe who was recently accused of sexual dalliances with several young men, and, perhaps less well-known, one of six Christian preachers whose finances were investigated by Congress a few years back.

“I’ve been going [to New Birth] for 10 years, and I’ve never felt God’s presence the way I feel it here,” says Ms. Katrina Maben. “My life has changed since I came here.”

What I’d like to do here is examine the implications of Ms. Maben’s sentiment, and why hers and similar tales fail to impress the skeptic.  Further, the problem I uncover should lead believers to always doubt their own “inner witness”.

Ms. Maben’s claim, assuming she’s sincere, presents us with three scenarios:

1)      Her feeling is authentic and the Christian god really is confirming the truth of the message she’s hearing.

2)      Her feeling derives from some other agency that seeks to fraudulently mislead her.

3)      Her feeling is a self-created delusion.

While most people, including Christians themselves, would probably agree with number 3 (or even perhaps 2), we’re compelled to consider the first scenario.  If it’s objectively true, the implications are pretty devastating for all other Christians, for it means their “inner witness” feeling for the gospel they believe in is either fraudulent or delusional.  But how would these Christians know?

What if scenarios 2 and 3 are objectively true?  Well, as above, how would Ms. Maben know it is she who is being misled or deluded?  She feels what she understands as the Holy Spirit and understandably concludes God endorses the message (not to mention the messenger…).  Some may think they can reason Ms. Maben out of her error by pointing out this or that scripture, but ironically Christian apologists have given her the ammunition to defeat such entreaties:

“the testimony of the Holy Spirit trumps all other evidence.”

“the witness, or testimony, of the Holy Spirit is its own proof; it is unmistakable; it does not need other proofs to back it up; it is self-evident and attests to its own truth.”

In other words, no argument or evidence is superior to what the believer regards as a confirmation by the Holy Spirit; the feeling alone is sufficient to establish the truth.  Absent begging the question, on what grounds can Christians deny the authenticity of Ms. Maben’s witness, or prove their own?  As far as I can see, none whatsoever. 

The central conundrum, inherent in our three scenarios above, is that the feeling of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit – as a completely subjective experience, but one held to be authoritative – offers no means for authentication. It is indistinguishable from that of a fraudulent or delusional feeling.  Consequently, even if there is a single Truth, it will constantly be obscured by error, which will compound itself as error begets error begets error ad nauseum.  This partly explains the permanent mutation of the Christian religion (or any religion for that matter which propounds such feelings as evidence of its truth).  Therefore, the method the Christian god is alleged to impart truth among his followers is not simply ineffective but detrimental. 

Further, in the face of sincerely held claims of an inner witness by others with beliefs contradictory to his own, the Christian believer must always have some doubt as to whether her own witness isn’t counterfeit.  In fact, given the thousands of Christian sects in existence, the Christian must regard it very possible, if not probable, such witness is counterfeit.

For the skeptical outsider, it’s all quite simple.  The believer makes the claim that the truth value of their religion is validated by a unique personal feeling (e.g., “inner witness”, “burning bosom”, etc.).  We see, however, that this personal feeling is common among believers who maintain contradictory doctrines.  Therefore, since the claim leads to arbitrary results, the skeptic is within her epistemological rights to reject it.

What the Christian god, if he exists, needs to do is provide the equivalent of a scientific method with which truth can become manifest and all error-filled doctrines become disproved.  An omniscient being who desires unity would have created a superior means to authenticate truth.  The fact that this omnipotent being’s signal is impossible to distinguish from the noise is justifiably regarded as evidence against his existence.

26 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit is worse than useless

  1. Interesting piece. I can’t say I disagree with much that you have written here. Certainly people often put too much stake into their inner feelings. I tend to side with Jonathan Edwards, in “Religious Affections,” in being cautious of the way that we interpret such feelings. Although many would assume that such feelings are automatically proof of something, I don’t think that is what is portrayed in scripture. After all, the Bereans were praised for their diligence in testing that which Paul preached and Paul himself encouraged the Thessalonians to “test everything. Hold on to the good.” It seems that Paul not only accepted the idea of false prophets and spirits but encouraged the church to be on the lookout for such.

    That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit doesn’t, in fact, interact with His people. You seem to be under the mistaken assumption that the Holy Spirit’s presence and communion within a church (or an individual) validates everything about that church. Given our inherent flaws, no church body will be able to get everything right. There are bound to be missteps and misunderstandings. Is it impossible to think that the Holy Spirit would desire to relate to groups and individuals throughout the spectrum of Christianity?

  2. Hi Eric, thanks for the excellent comment. I would be curious to know what you would say to Ms. Maben, or someone like her. After all, what she said seems to pass Paul’s test. Clearly, she understands what it feels like to “experience God” and that she feels him most accutely at New Birth. Notice also that her “life has changed”. Is she thus not “holding on to the good”?

    You seem to be under the mistaken assumption that the Holy Spirit’s presence and communion within a church (or an individual) validates everything about that church.

    What I think is that from a believer’s perspective, this is true. Well, perhaps they don’t regard everything as validated, but that the truth there is “purer” than anywhere else. After all, why would God encourage false gospels?

    Is it impossible to think that the Holy Spirit would desire to relate to groups and individuals throughout the spectrum of Christianity?

    Even if that leads to confusion or conflict? Do you think, for example, the Holy Spirit relates to practitioners of liberation theology? Or dominionism?

  3. Sorry for the delay. Things seem to be on the hectic side for the past several months, haha.

    I would tell Ms. Maben that her relationship with God is just that. There is no fathomable way that I could prove or disprove the reality of her feelings. To be honest, I can’t imagine coming to sound conclusion without having at least more than a quote from her. Perhaps if I knew her, or the situations in which bring her to those feelings, or the way that she feels, or at least something more, then I could venture a guess. Without such, it is nothing more than an assumption.

    In many ways, God is like a father. Not exclusively, but there is a reason why this imagery is used so often in the Bible. Think of how a father relates to his daughter. He may sincerely love her and want to connect with her on a personal level, and yet not approve of everything that she says, does, believes, etc. Thankfully, God doesn’t require perfect theology in order to commune with Him. If He did, then nobody would experience God.

    That’s also not to say that God is entirely tolerant of our lives outside of his fellowship. God, like any good father, is well attuned to corrective discipline.

  4. Ah, corrective discipline.

    Such as massive earthwide floods, genocide, and eternal torture?

    To paraphrase the Carlin (RIP) “But He loves you”

    At least the Calvinists are honest about their God being a right bastard.

    1. Well, first off, I don’t think the Genesis flood was global, but that’s a different conversation.

      The true torture of hell is the fact that God has removed you from His presence. This isn’t much different than God’s corrective discipline here on earth. Sure, there are a few times where God has utilized genocide and death for His purpose. Sometimes you have to cut out the cancer before it kills the rest of the body. However, most of the time, God’s wrath is a passive judgement, an act of “giving them over to their sin.” Often letting people make their own mistakes and paying the consequence is enough judgement in itself.
      As a side note, I always find it interesting that this kind of thought process is used as an argument against God. Just for the sake of argument, lets assume that your position is valid. Just because you don’t like God, doesn’t make Him any less real. “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” Arguments such as this only prove one thing: that this is your opinion about God. So after uncovering the already known fact that an atheist doesn’t like God leads us to the real question: So what?

  5. As a side note, I always find it interesting that this kind of thought process is used as an argument against God.

    Eric, on one level I agree with you. Such arguments as Brian M’s above have the whiff of an “argument from outrage”, which as you point out, are not valid.

    Nonetheless, the punishments meted out and planned by the Christian god are at odds with claimed attributes like “all-loving” and “all-knowing”. Such an observation is a valid point. This is the essence of Brian M’s argument, so humorously expressed by George Carlin.

    1. If a boy had a father who never disciplines or punishes him, I would suggest that this is inconsistent with love, not the other way around. A father who doesn’t discipline his children is one who just doesn’t care.

      1. I agree with you that discipline is not contrary to love. But discipline is not something any god I’m aware of engages in. Real discipline is a sort of training applied in order to direct behavior. And it should be proportional, e.g., you wouldn’t permanently scar someone for showing up late to class . The type of “discipline” supposedly meted by the Christian god doesn’t qualify by any of these standards. The main problem is that once the “discipline” is applied, it’s too late to alter the behavior.

        1. If you are under the impression that God lets you run free until you die and then sends you to hell, then you have misunderstood Christianity. God is actively involved in discipline and training throughout our lives.

    1. There’s no getting around the fact that pain itself is tool for our growth and development, even for the atheist (After all, if pain had no purpose, then we would have never evolved it in the first place, right?).

      God uses pain to guide us. He uses pain to teach us. He uses pain to discipline us. I don’t pretend to be able to point to specific events in history (or in the lives of others) and say, “That was definitely God,” but there are certainly times of pain in my own life which God has used to discipline and train me.

      1. Such pains can educate both children with parents (it doesn’t matter here how much time they use for actual education) and children without them.
        Anything in life is educating (even pain), especially, if you use it such way – but existence of conscious teacher or trainer (e.g. God) doesn’t and can’t follow from it.

        1. I’m not sure what you mean when you say, “existence of conscious teacher or trainer (e.g. God) doesn’t and can’t follow from it.”
          If you are trying to say – and I expect you are – that pain does not prove the existence of a teacher or trainer, then I agree. I am merely suggesting that they are not incompatible.

          1. Yes, I meant that. (English isn’t my native language, so I possibly use weird constructions very often.)

  6. “I agree with you that discipline is not contrary to love. But discipline is not something any god I’m aware of engages in. Real discipline is a sort of training applied in order to direct behavior. And it should be proportional, e.g., you wouldn’t permanently scar someone for showing up late to class . The type of “discipline” supposedly meted by the Christian god doesn’t qualify by any of these standards. The main problem is that once the “discipline” is applied, it’s too late to alter the behavior.”

    This is the meat of the problem. 🙂 And, I would argue that given the horrific disputes within Christianity, all using God’s will as a justification, that Christianity not only is ineffective at altering fundamentally human behavior but in fact exacerbates the nasty reality of our tribal band genetic heritage.

    I don’t know how any rational, “moral” human being that can read Christian theology and not experience a strong sense of outrage, so I will certainly acknowledge that I am at least partially “arguing from outrage” Mea culpa, there. Still…given the omnipotence of this “God” and his Omniscience, the very concept of punishing rational, thinking human beings for eternity for exercising the choice he purportedly gives us…it all appears to be one particularly nasty kind of game for this “God.” Call it pride, but how can one justify worshipping the God of the Bible….how is he any better than Smoking Mirror or the other barberous deities of past religions? You may claim that my dislike does not negate his existence…sure…I’ll buy that. But his behavior and his doctrines certainly suggest he is unworthy of worship or love. I’m sorry that I cannot get beyond that.

    1. The ability to chose anything means that we must live with the consequences of that choice. If you only have feeling of outrage towards God and freely choose to reject Him, why would you be further angered when he gives you what you want?

      People have this vision of Hell being like a fiery dungeon, but that’s not it. Fire and flames are no more than imagery. The real judgement and pain arises from separation from God. God doesn’t need to actively torture people in Hell. They can do that on their own.

      Personally, I think you see what you want to see. I have no problem worshipping the God of the Bible. God is good in all that he does and that alone makes Him worthy of my allegiance. People just get caught up on the fact that “good” is not always “nice.”

  7. I’m sure the slaughtered first born children of Egypt (after God hardened Pharaoh’s heart) would be enthralled with your definition of “Good” Eric. Or the victims of inumerable tragedies as the Chosen people mythically slaughtered their way across Canaan.

    I’m not sure I find your definition of “Good” very appealing.

    If one stays within your own mythology, maybe there is a reason 1/3 of the angels rebelled?

    1. God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not the only aspect of that story. Pharaoh actively chose his own destruction as well as the destruction of his people. The israelites had already suffered slavery by the Egyptians and their time of freedom was at hand. The establishment of the Israelites in the Holy Land was part of God’s promise for the redemption of His fallen people, and an echo of what was to come. The Jewish people held on to the story of Passover and the Exodus as a remembrance that God will carry them through difficult times. Ultimately, it is the Passover that established the pattern that would lead to the Redemption of all mankind. If you don’t see the ultimate good in that, then its because you can’t see the forest for the trees.

  8. To continue…

    We agreed that pain in our life is compatible with loving God, who teaches in such way. But I can say that this type of answer allows to make compatible practically (maybe even absolutely) every evil in our lives.

    Or am I mistaken?

  9. Imho, not exactly. I tried explain some idea from me, not to follow your line (it’s different, even if linked in this case).

    The idea is simple – there is no such evil (pain, etc) and no such absence of gods which could refute the idea about loving teacher God. There is always compability.

  10. You’re right…I cannot see the forst for the trees becauswe we are not talking about “forests” or “trees” here but thinking, feeling human beings being played with by some monstrous God who, although He is purportedly OMNISCIENT and OMNIPOTENT apparantly has not choice but to do things this way.

    So…Christian apologists are fond of Pascal’s Wager. My favorite similar question is: God is either Omnipotent/Omniscient or Good. He cannot be both.

    1. Well certainly you can not have it both ways. You cannot claim that God is both monstrous and suggest that he is incapable of ending suffering. That being said, your last point is well taken. The reality is that God is either unable or unwilling to end our suffering in this life (though I don’t really see what this has to do with Pascal’s Wager). I would emphatically suggest that God is unwilling to end our suffering in this life; however, I find that your conclusion that God is not good is unwarranted.

      I think your folly lies in a misunderstanding of what the terms “good” and “evil” really represent. Somehow these terms have come to represent nothing more than “things we like or dislike.” In truth, morality does not encompass suffering or even death. I assure you that pain, suffering, and even death are not “evil” in and of themselves.

      An athlete suffers a great deal in his training because he is willing to endure the pain in order to shape his body into what he wants. Just like iron must be beaten to make a sword and any good pottery must be fired to make it durable, God uses pain and suffering in order to shape us as He sees fit (and like Paul suggests, the potter has the right to make whatever he wants with his clay).

      Certainly you are entitled to hold your own opinion of God’s actions, but just because you don’t like them, doesn’t make them evil. And, if you are so displeased with God, would you expect Him to subject you to an eternity with Him? It certainly doesn’t seem to me that heaven is something that you want.

  11. So: Eternal punishment and genocide are the moral equivalent of an athelete’s training? Especially given that the victim of the ever so loving god is no longer alive to benefit from said training. Your apologia does nothing but make your God ever more vile and unworthy of worship.

    1. Obviously you and I hold opposing world views. Death may seem horrible to you, but only because you see it as an end-point. I see it as a transition into our afterlife. God, being the author of life, has the right to take it away as He sees fit.

      Though you see eternal punishment as an act of vileness, I see it as justice. No person will spend eternity away from God without willingly choosing his own downfall.

      When all is said and done, you have your assessment of God’s actions and I have mine. You see God as vile and unworthy because that is what you choose to believe. So again, we come back to the fact that an atheist doesn’t like God. Why should your opinion of my God matter to me in the least?

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